With its debut in 1983, Video Music Box was a celebration of all things hip hop, with Ralph McDaniels aka “Uncle Ralph” serving as a host, director, hip hop historian, tastemaker, and documentarian. The new documentary, You’re Watching Video Music Box, directed and executive produced by Nas, now airing on Showtime, chronicles the music video show that spanned four decades.
From the beginning, McDaniels has introduced and showcased music videos, live performances, and interviews with future stars like Nas, Jay Z, LL Cool J, Nicki Minaj, and Fat Joe long before they were icons and titans. The documentary sets out to share the global impact of hip hop and features never-before-seen footage from the archives of Video Music Box, with McDaniels sharing behind the scenes professional and personal triumphs. EBONY spoke with the cultural hip hop impresario and dove into the highlights, history, legacy and cultural impact of his show.
Can you share what you wanted to tell us with your documentary You’re Watching Video Music Box? Was there anything that surprised you?
Ralph McDaniels: The audience knows the story of hip hop and its origins so this documentary had to show more. I was adamant about telling a different hip hop story from what the masses had heard. We had to represent Brooklyn and Queens perspectives because we didn’t really hear about it. We know the artists, but we don’t know their backgrounds. There are so many artists to come out of Queens that are very successful.
Keep in mind, it’s not just a New York story, but also Chicago, Miami, and so on. I talk about redlining in the communities of Queens and the impact of systemic racism. While it’s not in the documentary, I spoke with Luke (Luther Campbell), and he also said when he was growing up, the same thing was happening in Liberty City in Florida. This wasn’t just happening in New York, but it was happening everywhere. It’s crucial that this information be passed on to the next generation. I want to open up these conversations about things that were happening to our parents and our grandparents.
Nas is the executive producer and director of the doc. What was it like to work with him on your project?
Nas and I go way back to the beginning of his career. I directed his first video, so it was a 360 moment when he was brought on to direct this project. Earlier on, he was already an executive producer because he is a co-founder of Mass Appeal. When he said he wanted to direct it, I was blown away. Nas is someone who I’ve known since he was 17 years old, and with all the success that he’s had, I was amazed that he even had the time to do this. I had a concept for the documentary. Sometimes, people don’t necessarily see your vision because it’s from your perspective. But Nas understood that he’s from the culture, and he’s been there. That made me feel a lot more comfortable being open about sharing things that I was unsure that people would get.
There are many icons of hip hop featured and interviewed in the documentary like Jay-Z Nas, Run-DMC, 50 Cent, A Tribe Called Quest, LL Cool J, and Roxane Shanté. It seems like there are a lot of artists and emcees out of Queens, NY. What do you attribute to this?
You know we used to say there’s something in the water with Queens. But we just had a little bit more space in Queens. I’ve expressed this to Nas too, and he kind of agrees with me. Since Nas is from the Queensbridge houses, which is the biggest housing project in the country, he says he didn’t have all that room like everybody else in Queens. But, generally, we have a little more room than other NYC boroughs. I’m originally from Brooklyn, and the reason why I moved to Queens was that my parents wanted a little bit more space, to escape the congestion of Brooklyn. And I think it just gives us a little bit more room to think and think bigger. We get to look at things a little wider in the vision, in the words we put on paper or the images we put on screen. I think that’s why Queens has had broad success. Run-DMC understood that they had to put some guitars in their music to make it work on MTV because rock music was the focus for MTV at the time. Groups like A Tribe Called Quest understood the spiritual side of hip-hop and expressed that in the music. Someone like 50 Cent understands that these stories from the streets are important, and people want to know where these artists come from.
What is one of your most memorable moments from Video Music Box?
I remember when Nelson Mandela came to the United States for the first time after being released from prison in South Africa. I was invited to this press junket with a number of other major networks like ABC and NBC. The folks that put it together knew that we were reaching a whole lot of young people and they wanted young people to see this monumental moment. We were among Reverend Jesse Jackson and the first Black Mayor of New York City, David Dinkins. It was important that we get that on the screen and on the show in between the music videos so that young people could see Nelson Mandela on a show that they watched. That was a big moment for me.
Video Music Box was constantly innovating and is where the shout-out started. Can you share how you came up with this?
We wanted to engage the crowd when we went out to clubs and performances. We gave them the chance to talk and told people we were going to let them do a shout-out. At first, people were like, what’s a shout out, but eventually it just kind of took a life of itself.
I was watching a Chris Rock special and somebody in the crowd asked to do a shout out and he said this ain’t Video Music Box. At first, it was a New York thing, now Presidents give shout-outs. It’s a concept that we made popular, but I feel like it’s transcended to being something that’s just so hip hop.
What are your thoughts on the current state of hip hop and its future?
We have some great artists. Drake is amazing— just the body of work that he has out, and he doesn’t get the credit for it now. I do think he will in the future; he has a generation of fans, and the stats and numbers don’t lie. I am also a fan of artists like Kendrick Lamar, J. Cole, Tyler, the Creator, and ASAP Ferg. These guys are taking it way beyond the music and turning it into businesses.
Young people now don’t want to work for someone else at a 9-5. They want to work for themselves and to be able to create their own space and come up with new ideas. This is what an artist does, and that’s what hip hop has always been about. With social media, we can see what artists are doing and creating in real-time. It can be very inspiring. Unfortunately, there is a side of what’s happening now that focuses on violence and negativity because it gets numbers and likes and views—that’s the negative side of it. But it’s not like it didn’t exist in previous generations as well. With technology, you see that in real-time too.
The future of hip hop is going to move the way it’s supposed to move. I’m not one of those guys that is just about one time period of hip hop. We have to let it do what it does. As it’s going to grow, it may go through some tough times, and it may go through some great times. If you want to understand the music now, you have to go to an event that these kids are at, and then you’ll get it. It’s not so much different than how it was for us in the early ’80s. They’re not out to get crazy, just out to enjoy themselves and the artists. Now, we see a lot more diversity, and we see a lot more inclusion in the audience and with artists. We have Lil Nas X now, and this is what this is. This is what’s going on, get over it. The thing is that there’s always something, some genre that we don’t know about that’s happening right now. The mainstream doesn’t see it yet and whenever it happens, it will happen.
I wanted to ask about the iconic “Video Music Box” microphone. Will you tell us how your microphone flag ended up on display in the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture?
Yes, having the microphone box at the Smithsonian was amazing because I never thought that something like that would happen. It was Chuck D who suggested that they reach out to me and now it’s there. It’s funny because we’re not in the hip hop section. Instead we’re in the local TV section. When people visit they tell me they can’t find it because they are looking for hip hop when it’s located with television.
In the documentary, you speak about preservation of culture; you’re working wit the Queens Public Library as their hip hop coordinator. Can you tell us more?
We’ve been developing an archive since the beginning. You can go back to interviews that I did in the 80s where I talk about the importance of this footage, saying that 40 years from now, we’re going to want to look at this. Here we are 40 years later! I knew it was important because I realized that so much of our history had been lost over the years. Some of these big networks had thrown away master tapes of TV shows because it didn’t matter, it wasn’t important or things had been lost over the years.
About two years ago, we started the Video Music Box Collection, a 501c-3 non-profit, with a mission to preserve, archive, and digitize over 30,000 hours of content. That is my original content of performances, interviews, b-roll of different events, and music videos that may have only aired once or twice on my show and don’t exist anywhere else. This way a hundred years from now, it will be accessible, and we want it to be available to higher education institutions, museums, and libraries. There are a lot of schools that now have a hip hop course and this footage offers a real and raw perspective.
I started working with the Queens Public Library about five years ago. It started out with the goal of sharing the history of Queens and hip hop, in which we create a timeline of how hip hop started from the 70s up till now. We also decided to create some programs for kids, teens, and adults. Since it’s a library, we wanted to have an author talks series that included writers, artists, and prominent people related to hip-hop. For example, someone like Daymond John, who grew up in Queens and started out selling T-shirts on the street. Part of the hip-hop scene was FUBU, For Us, By Us, he was able to turn that into one of the most successful urban businesses ever. Now, most people know him from Shark Tank but they didn’t know how he became successful. We had him come in to share his entrepreneurship story. We also had DMC talk about his love of reading and creating comics. DMC makes graphic novels and is at all the Comic-Con events with his graphic novels. He wanted to do comic books before he became a rapper. He said his rhymes were like that of a superhero, and he wanted to have that in the form of graphic novels as well. We continue to create programs that are relevant and inspire the community.